In the closely watched dispute, the Sacramento-based Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling is arguing that the ban should be repealed because Oakland officials did not prepare an environmental impact report before outlawing nonbiodegradable plastic bags at retail outlets that do more than $1 million a year in business.
The City Council gave final approval to the ban in July, arguing it was sound environmental policy. But the plastic bag coalition said if customers switch to paper, it will have negative environmental effects of its own.
"It's not speculation," said Michael Mills, an attorney for the coalition. "Everyone knows that paper-bag use is going to increase, but no one knows by how much. That's the exact reason, your honor, to do the EIR."
Not so, the city argued in court. Oakland officials maintain that use of reusable bags would increase with the ban on oil-based plastic, as would the use of biodegradable plastic.
"There's no evidence that more paper bags will be used," said Kevin Siegel, the attorney who represented the city in court. "There are only arguments that more paper bags will be used."
Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch said he would rule within the next week or two.
"I think it looks hopeful," said City Councilwoman Jean Quan, who co-wrote Oakland's ordinance with Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, and attended part of Tuesday's hearing. "The judge seemed very open."
Should the courts rule against the city, officials would likely complete an environmental report, at a cost of $100,000 or more, Quan said, before moving again to adopt the ban.
The situation in Oakland is being watched by cities across the nation and comes as part of a widespread push to curtail the use of oil-based plastic bags, which, critics say, are killing wildlife around the world.
Environmentalists are sounding alarms about a massive vortex of swirling trash, most of it plastic, called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or the Pacific Trash Vortex in the Pacific Ocean. The patch is said to be twice the size of Texas.
China recently moved to ban production of certain plastic bags ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics. Ireland and South Africa are among other countries to curb plastic-bag use. And, in the United States, after San Francisco and Oakland passed their bans, other cities are considering doing the same.
Whole Foods Market earlier this month said that by April 22 -- Earth Day -- plastic will not be an option at checkout lines in any of its 270 stores. Oakland's Whole Foods is already plastic free.
A brief the city filed in the case said Californians use 19 billion disposable plastic bags a year, adding 147,000 tons of plastic-bag waste to landfills annually. About 1 percent to 5 percent of bags are recycled, the city says, compared with 45 percent of paper bags.
In court Tuesday, however, Mills stressed that the immediate legal question is not whether plastic is better than paper, but only whether the city adequately studied the adverse environmental impacts of its ban on plastic.
"I'm hopeful we will win," Mills said after Tuesday's hearing.
Reach Kelly Rayburn at 510-208-6435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
Sources: Legal briefs filed by city of Oakland and the Coalition to Support Plastic Bag Recycling